Let's get one thing out in the open: In general, the home building industry has a horrible reputation when it comes to warranty. We've all heard stories about the builder who never comes back to fix anything, who won't return phone calls, or who finds a way to say any problem isn't covered.
We've all heard those stories because people like to listen to them the same way people slow down to look at a car wreck. Humans are wired to be attracted to bad news.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about how reputable builders (and there are lots of them out there) handle warranty, and what you should expect if something needs to be fixed.
What to expect for warranty issues
The warranty period begins the moment you take possession of your new home. You will receive some kind of booklet (maybe even via email) that outlines the warranty: what's covered and what's not, and what constitutes a warrantable issue. It will include the various procedures for reporting warranty issues to your builder. For example, reporting a drywall crack is different than reporting a furnace failure in the middle of winter. One issue is minor and can wait, while the other requires prompt attention.
If there are little things that come up over time, your builder may ask that you wait a bit on those minor cosmetic repairs and consolidate them into fewer trips. It's more efficient for the builder and more efficient for you so you don't need to schedule multiple days off work to meet a contractor. Remember that the contractors are not under the direct control of the builder. I don't care what the builder says—those contractors work for themselves, set their own schedules, and can be a bit unpredictable. That's why you hired a builder in the first place—to act as a buffer between you and them.
The little things that happen after you move into the house usually happen pretty quickly as the house settles into equilibrium. Let's say you have a crack in the floor tile where it meets the tub, and three weeks later you have a minor drywall corner crack in the back of the pantry. The builder probably has a general repair person who is capable of taking care of both issues. If you hold off on the first issue and wait for others to arise, it's one trip instead of two and only one day to work into your calendar to meet them at the house.
But a furnace going out in the middle of winter is not something that can wait. You'll probably get an emergency number to call, or maybe several emergency numbers, for things like heat and air, plumbing, and electrical. The response to those issues should be pretty fast, as each of those companies has service technicians who handle exactly that type of service call.
What not to expect for warranty issues
Your warranty won't cover normal home maintenance issues like dirty furnace filters, resetting breakers or ground fault outlets, light bulbs that burn out, or caulking that starts to shrink after a year or so. It also doesn't cover damage caused by you or your movers, wind or storm damage, or any issues that get worse as a result of something you should've taken care of but didn't.
For example, if there's a small leak that's covered by the warranty but you don't report it for six months, the interior water damage becomes your responsibility. The builder will still fix the leak, but he won't fix the interior damage that could've been avoided entirely if you reported it sooner.
The gray area of warranty
There's a lot of gray area in the warranty, and here's where some due diligence on your part before hiring your builder will pay off. Your builder's attitude toward warranty will determine how much help you'll get when gray area issues arise.
There are two basic approaches to warranty. Many builders see warranty claims as an expense to be avoided whenever possible, so they'll look for ways to get out of it. As soon as that one-year warranty period is over, you're on your own.
The other perspective, which is less common but typically held by the more reputable builders, is that warranty is an opportunity to shine. Those builders welcome the opportunity to demonstrate how they're different and how much effort they'll put forth to take care of their customers.
Here's an example: I know a builder in Oklahoma City who drove by a customer's house after a strong thunderstorm, and he noticed that a few ridge cap shingles had blown off the roof. There's no way that damage classified as covered under warranty, but that builder called his roofing contractor and had the shingles replaced anyway. In fact, the customer hadn't even realized the shingles were missing until the builder pointed it out.
A builder like that recognizes that his customer is going to tell that story to all his friends, and the money he spent fixing a problem that wasn't his to fix will go a long way in goodwill and future business. When you do your homework looking for a builder, listen for stories like that one.
Warranty issues are going to happen on nearly every custom home. Follow the process outlined in your warranty paperwork for reporting them, and your builder should handle them in a professional, prompt manner.